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What is a Kill Screen?

By Phil Shepley
Updated May 16, 2024
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A kill screen is a major error that occurs in a video game and usually causes further progress in the game to be halted. This error is usually due to a programming error or a design oversight and will cause the game to freeze, crash or simply become unplayable. Kill screens are usually associated with classic video games such as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, which are from the Golden Age of Arcade Games.

Probably the most infamous kill screen is in the arcade game of Pac-Man. When the player reaches the 256th level of the game, the right hand side of the screen is replaced by random symbols and letters, and the game begins to act too erratically to play further. The reason this happens is that within the programming of the game, there is an 8-bit level counter. Since it is 8-bit, it can only possibly contain 255 distinct values, and the 256th value causes the game to crash. This phenomenon is known as integer overflow.

Integer overflow is not necessarily the only cause for the kill screen to occur in a video game, and sometimes games crash because of other types of computer bugs. An example of this was in another classic video game: Donkey Kong. In this case, the kill screen occurred on the 117th screen and was due to a design oversight by the programmers. In each successive level of Donkey Kong, the player is given less time to complete the level. The oversight is that by the time the player reaches level 117, they are no longer given enough time to possibly complete the level. This results in the kill screen where the player can go no further.

Other famous games that result in a kill screen after a certain amount of time are Dig Dug, Duck Hunt, Galaga, and Frogger. Usually these can be fixed with a patch. Other times, the kill screen actually becomes the goal of the player, who finally “wins” the game by causing it, ironically, to become unplayable. In the cases of Galaga and Frogger, the kill screen does not necessarily occur in a particular level, and a variety of circumstances can cause integer overflow and the end of the game.

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Discussion Comments
By shepley — On Oct 07, 2009

The writer implied within the sentence that using the 256th value causes integer overflow (i.e. there are 256 values, 255 of which are available.) Nice try, though.

By anon45198 — On Sep 14, 2009

"Since it is 8-bit, it can only possibly contain 255 distinct values" Ummm, no. An 8-bit register can display 256 distinct values, not 255. Fail.

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